Industrial manslaughter laws are still new to many parts of Australia, and convictions are rare

With one young father killed in a workplace accident on Wednesday and another fighting for his life in hospital, debate over Australia’s industrial manslaughter laws has been reignited.

The Ballarat mine collapse tragedy on Wednesday night has shone a light on industrial manslaughter laws across the country and sparked calls for change by the Australian Workers Union.

Definitions vary between states, but essentially industrial manslaughter legislation allows both corporations and individuals to be charged for negligence or breach of duty when it causes a death at work.

While there’s no national standard, in almost every case the laws they replace significantly increase penalties for workplace death convictions.

In some jurisdictions, the maximum penalties exceed $19 million for corporations and 25 years in jail for individuals.

Where are the laws in place?
The Australian Capital Territory was the first jurisdiction to introduce the laws, in 2004.

It remained the only jurisdiction, until a 2016 incident at Dreamworld on the Gold Coast prompted the Queensland government to take action.

Four people died when the Thunder River Rapids ride malfunctioned, triggering a review of the state’s workplace safety standards.

Other states moved shortly afterwards.

Victoria and the Northern Territory introduced their own laws in 2020, followed by Western Australia in 2022 and South Australia, last year.

The New South Wales government has begun consultation, and said it intended to introduce a bill to parliament this year.

The Commonwealth has created laws of its own, that will apply to public sector workers from July.

Tasmania is now the only Australian jurisdiction that isn’t considering industrial manslaughter laws, but convictions in those states that have them are still rare.

What are the conviction rates?
The ACT has never recorded a single conviction, despite the territory’s laws being in place in for 20 years.

In Queensland, Brisbane Auto Recycling Pty Ltd was convicted in 2020 and fined $3 million, after a worker was killed by a reversing forklift driven by an unlicensed driver. The company’s two directors were sentenced to 10-month suspended sentences.

In 2022, Gympie business owner Jeffrey Owen was sentenced to five years behind bars, after a court found his negligence killed 60-year-old Noel Ormes in July 2019.

While in Victoria, LH Holding Management Pty Ltd was fined $1.3 million for a breach of duty for causing the death of 25-year-old subcontractor Michael Tsahrelias.

Mr Tsahrelias was standing near a forklift, trying to steady the load when it tipped over and crushed him.

His boss Laith Hanna was also convicted, but escaped a jail conviction. He was placed on a community corrections order and must complete a course in forklift operations.

Why are convictions so rare?
Mr Hanna is the only Victorian convicted under the laws.

The Victorian Trades Hall Council is calling for more.

“We think every workplace death is preventable,” assistant secretary Wil Stracke said.

“We want to see more aggressive prosecutions. A tool is only useful if it gets used.”

One of the main reasons convictions are still rare is because the laws are still fairly new, according to Senior in House advocate at Gallant Law Jonathan Brancato.

“Another reason for the rarity in convictions is because it’s very difficult to attribute liability,” Mr Brancato said.

“There are often other organisations involved… it’s not very clear cut to just attribute blame to the employer.”

Source: ABC News

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